James Coburn was the first Hollywood movie star I ever saw in the flesh. It was the late Seventies in north London and I was doing my morning paper round when, shimmering out of the early-morning haze of Highgate’s Swains Lane, came the star of Our Man Flint, striding along past the row of suburban London villas with his trademark languid self-assurance. (He was dating pint-sized British songbird and local resident Lynsey de Paul at the time.) The effect was incandescent. Coburn didn’t just look like a movie star off screen, he looked like an adolescent boy’s Platonic ideal of a movie star.
He was rugged and tall (6ft 2in) with silvery-white hair that cried out for some gorgeous Nabokovian adjective: ‘argent’ or ‘nacreous’.
He was wearing a corduroy jacket with rather epic lapels, I remember, and some kind of natty neck scarf.
I couldn’t help but stare; he just looked so…deluxe. But he gave me a friendly little salute as he passed, which for a pimply youth still in Orange Tag flares was about as cool as it gets. I never forgot it.
Twenty years later, I moved to Los Angeles and crossed paths with an Englishwoman called Victoria who was cat-sitting for Coburn while he was travelling with his second wife. I got to tag along with her, visiting Coburn’s house in Beverly Hills and duly admiring his collection of Chinese gongs, played intently on many a chat show. (“It’s kind of like the sonic mirror of your soul,” he told a bemused Michael Parkinson.) There was also an array of eye-popping Japanese erotica in the toilet and four of the fattest cats I’d ever seen. The house was more chintzy than I had expected, but it didn’t dent the mystique.
For my generation, raised on Sunday afternoon repeats of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, Coburn was one of the great Sixties Tough Guys – part of that breed of hip macho actors like Steve McQueen and James Garner who bridged the gap between the square-jawed heroes of the Fifties (Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster) and the neurotic anti-heroes of the Seventies, such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
These Sixties Tough Guys were old-school without being square. They’d all served in the army or navy, but were shaped by the social liberation of the Fifties, so they smoked dope and broke the rules, whilst being grown-ups and not angst-ridden adolescents. The result was a style of acting that was intense and modern without the woe-is-me excesses of the Method. In a word, cool. As Coburn liked to say, “I’m a jazz kind of actor, not rock’n’roll.”
If Steve McQueen was the era’s King of Cool, then Coburn was the laid-back older brother, watching it all go by with a sardonic grin – often enough in real life, too. Robert Vaughn recalled emerging from a restaurant with Coburn while making
The Magnificent Seven in Mexico only to watch Coburn’s shiny new Jaguar go crashing into a wall. As the dust settled, a drunken valet tumbled out headfirst to the ground. “I tell you what, Roberto,” said Coburn, slapping a hand on Vaughn’s shoulder, “we’re never gonna get a taxi at this time of night.” “Even then he had class,” said Vaughn.
It was a quality that came up a lot when I spoke with various friends and relatives of Coburn: “Classy… A class act… A classy guy.”
Katy Haber, who spent a decade as director Sam Peckinpah’s Girl Friday, working with Coburn on three of Peckinpah’s films including
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, went further: “He was a prince.” Among her mementoes is a photo of her and Coburn on the set of Pat Garrett in 1973. Amid the heat and dust of Durango, Coburn reclines on a director’s chair in his sheriff costume, sporting distinctly non-Method mirror shades and a Gauloises in a cigarette holder. “Jimmy loved what being an actor gave him, where it took him,” she said.
Many of his acquaintances described him as both a seeker and a man’s man, an avidly curious soul who read widely on Eastern philosophy without forsaking the finer things in life. He did kung-fu and Chinese wand exercises, but savoured the finest cigars and clarets, and always kept a bottle of Stoli in the freezer.
He was simultaneously new age and old-school. He liked patchouli oil, but burned through stop signs in a string of Ferraris. (Broadcaster Chris Evans bought Coburn’s old Spyder 250 GT in 2008 for £5.5 million, setting a new world record for the highest price paid for a vintage car at auction.) As he explained once: “I meditate, I take good care of myself, sure. I don’t get too involved in the details.” He wore ‘elegant wolf’ attire – blazers and silk polka dot handkerchiefs – but never stopped using the Beatnik slang of his New York bachelor days. “It’s a groove and gas,” he would say, or, “That’s the jazz of it, man.” He was groovy, macho and debonair as the decade required, appearing with everyone from Cary Grant to Kermit the Frog.
Even Tom Hanks gushed like a love-struck fan when he met Coburn at a party. He was, in short, Hollywood royalty.
Coburn drifted into the army after school, where he played the conga drums in a service club band before deciding on a career in acting after his formidable baritone (brought on by a childhood bout of bronchitis) found him doing voiceovers for army training films. His unlikely role model was Mickey Rooney, whom he’d watched repeatedly while working as an usher at the local cinema. His biggest influence, though, was grande dame Stella Adler, under whom he studied in New York at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
He blossomed under her flamboyant approach and quoted her maxims for the rest of his life (‘Never be boring, darling!’).
Thanks to his rangy physique and deep voice, he was soon working steadily on television Westerns such as
Wagon Train and Bonanza. He nearly always played the heavy or the murderer – everything from eyepatch-wearing hicks to waistcoated smoothies – and tended to fare best when he could add a little panache or sarcastic topspin to his lines.
The apotheosis of all this fine-tuned physicality was Coburn’s big break as the knife-throwing gunman in The Magnificent Seven in 1960. The set in Mexico was a testosterone-fest of hotshot actors fidgeting with their Stetsons to upstage the star, Yul Brynner. But Coburn went the other way, making a virtue of his minimal dialogue (just 14 terse lines), and embodying a Zen-like stillness instead. He must be the first Western hero to wait for the bad guys by sitting down cross-legged and inspecting a flower.
Born James Harrison Coburn III in 1928, he grew up in Compton, Los Angeles, where his father was a garage mechanic. “I came from dustbowl folk,” he said, “ordinary people who were stultified by the American Dream.” The family had relocated from Nebraska after the Great Depression wiped out their Ford dealership, and Coburn always felt his father never got over the loss. “To watch your father go down like that is a hard one.”
The result was a harsh streak which affected Coburn profoundly. “His last words were ‘Goddammit’, which was typical,” said Coburn. “I don’t think he ever really hugged me once.” But, in general, he enjoyed a sunlit, carefree upbringing. He had his own car at 17, a coveted Winfield roadster, and ran around with a cool crew (“Good kids, no assholes”).
Coburn’s breakthrough into movies was testament to the influence of another powerful and magnetic woman in his life – his first wife, Beverly Kelly. Raised in California, she was an exotic dark-haired beauty with an edgy, potent charm.
Her idea of relaxation was heading off to Tibet to collect Buddhist artefacts. She wore dark robes and a perfume from Cairo called Dragon’s Blood. “She had the authority of a high priestess,” says Frank Messa, an artist and long-time friend of the Coburns.
Beverly’s influence was crucial to Coburn’s success. When he was fretting about how to play his part in The Magnificent Seven, it was Beverly who told him simply to emulate the Zen-like poise of the swordsman in the original Seven Samurai.
The couple married in 1959 – down in Mexico by most people’s recollection – and Coburn adopted Beverly’s young daughter, Lisa, from her first marriage, as his own. “I was always her daddy,” he said. A son, James H Coburn IV, known as Jimmy, followed in 1961.
By 1964, with Coburn progressing to bigger movie roles, the couple decided to buy a house to match. It was a sprawling Moroccan mansion in Beverly Hills, where the neighbours included Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon. Beverly brought in designer Tony Duquette and turned the house into a Swinging Sixties fevered dream of turquoise walls, scarlet bannisters and zebra-skin rugs.